Mardi Isler doesn’t give a flattering assessment of the southern entrance to Squirrel Hill.
“I’ve lived here for 25 years and nothing annoys me more than having to turn off the Parkway into that ugliness,” she said.
Isler is with the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, a nonprofit neighborhood improvement group proposing to renovate the area around the five-point intersection at Murray and Forward avenues by making it grander to drivers, friendlier to pedestrians and greener end to end.
The proposed “Squirrel Hill Gateway Project” includes dozens of large and small ideas. There would be new signs approaching and announcing the neighborhood. There would be iconic sculptures at the entrance. A median would divide part of Forward Avenue to ease traffic. And there would be many more trees, street lamps, bike racks and benches.
Around two-dozen people attended a meeting at Shaare Torah on June 25 to learn about the details of the Gateway Project, a grassroots proposal to spruce up the stretch of Forward and Murray running roughly from the Parkway East entrance to Phillips Street.
The June 25 presentation was the third public meeting on the project.
In early May, the SHUC outlined the current state of the block. In early June, they gathered ideas for improving the area. Now, those ideas have formed the basis of the Gateway Project proposal, created by local architectural firm Rothschild Doyno. The SHUC hired Rothschild Doyno using a grant from the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that connects organizations with architects and planners.
The ideas range from small, practical improvements (better-defined crosswalks) to larger, more ambitious elements (a light sculpture near the Parkway Bridge) to broader ideas (a façade improvement fund for businesses and new zoning codes).
From a municipal standpoint, the most complex idea is a proposed median dividing the wide segment of Forward Avenue leading to the entrance of the Parkway East.
“With the width of that roadway, there’s really an extra lane,” said Kate Tunney, with Rothschild Doyno, comparing the proposed median to the one on Grant Street downtown.
A median on Forward would require the approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, as would another proposal to move the standard signs at the off-ramp of the Parkway and add more decorative signs announcing the entrance to Squirrel Hill.
The Gateway Project proposal is broken into seven “themes,” each focusing either on a different stretch of the area or on a different aspect of the improvement project.
Breaking the project into smaller pieces allows the SHUC to go after more smaller funding opportunities, rather than trying to accomplish the project wholesale, Isler said.
“We don’t exactly know, quite honestly, how we’re going to fund this,” Isler admitted, but, she added, the SHUC plans to actively pursue every funding opportunity it can find.
She also said some elements of the project don’t need funding.
Isler earned free trees through the “Tree Tender” program, a volunteer initiative of The Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest. She said the city is storing 33 street lamps — leftovers from an improvement effort on Forbes Avenue— that can be used on the lower end of Murray. She is also floating a plan for local businesses and residents to sponsor benches.
“So now we have trees and lights and maybe benches,” Isler said.
Ken Doyno, principal at Rothschild Doyno, said the proposal intentionally focuses on public rights of way, and would not try to tear down existing buildings. He added that the project sponsors plan to keep an open dialogue with area property owners.
“We’ve been talking about the right of way, but the reality is those property owners are very much tied to the right of way,” Doyno said.
If fully implemented, the proposal could include a fund to help facilitate façade improvements such as business signs protruding perpendicularly from storefronts to ease viewing on narrow sidewalks. The proposal could also push for zoning codes to visually unify the block.
Following the June 25 presentation, attendees got a chance to weigh in on the themes and elements they thought should be given the highest priority.
Proposals to revamp the entry signs to Squirrel Hill, to put a median down part of Forward and to add trees to the lower end of Murray received the most votes. Proposals to make zoning code changes, create a façade improvement fund and build a plaza on the wide sidewalk on Murray avenue north of Phillips Street received the fewest votes.
Right now, the proposal is just that: a proposal, still in draft form and years from completion.
As a grass roots effort, the Gateway Project doesn’t have the official backing of any government entity, although Isler said local leaders including two city councilmen, a state representative and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl have been supportive so far.
Isler plans to spend the coming months writing grant proposals, and hopes to have more information about the project by the next SHUC annual meeting in June 2010.
The Squirrel Hill Gateway Project is not affiliated with Forward Square, the $50 million private development proposed for the corner of Murray and Forward avenues.
However, Isler said, the SHUC and the Forward Square developers have been in communication to make sure their efforts won’t clash in design or planning.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)